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Most Teens with Eating Disorders Go Without Treatment

Science Update

Teen girl resting head on desk.

About 3 percent of U.S. adolescents are affected by an eating disorder, but most do not receive treatment for their specific eating condition, according to an NIMH-funded study published online ahead of print March 7, 2011, in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Background

Kathleen Merikangas, Ph.D., of NIMH and colleagues analyzed data from the National Comorbidity Study-Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A), a nationally representative, face-to-face survey of more than 10,000 teens ages 13 to 18. Previously published results found that about 20 percent of youth are affected by a severe mental disorder, and a substantial proportion of these youth do not receive mental health care.

In this new study, the authors tracked the prevalence of eating disorders and the proportion of those youth who received treatment for these disorders.

Results of the Study

According to the data, 0.3 percent of youth have been affected by anorexia, 0.9 percent by bulimia, and 1.6 percent by binge-eating disorder. The researchers also tracked the rate of some forms of eating disorders not otherwise specified (ED-NOS), a catch-all category of symptoms that do not meet full criteria for specific disorders but still impact a person’s life. ED-NOS is the most common eating disorder diagnosis. Overall, another 0.8 percent had subthreshold anorexia, and another 2.5 percent had symptoms of subthreshold binge-eating disorder.

In addition,

  • Hispanics reported the highest rates of bulimia, while Whites reported the highest rates of anorexia.
  • The majority who had an eating disorder also met criteria for at least one other psychiatric disorder such as depression.
  • Each eating disorder was associated with higher levels of suicidal thinking compared to those without an eating disorder.

Significance

The prevalence of these disorders and their association with coexisting disorders, role impairment, and suicidal thinking suggest that eating disorders represent a major public health concern. In addition, the significant rates of subthreshold eating conditions support the notion that eating disorders tend to exist along a spectrum and may be better recognized by doctors if they included a broader range of symptoms. In addition, the findings clearly underscore the need for better access to treatment specifically for eating disorders.

Reference

Swanson SA, Crow SJ, LeGrange D, Swendsen J, Merikangas KR. Prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in adolescents: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement. Archives of General Psychiatry. Online ahead of print March 7, 2011.